YULI UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
How Yuli Gurriel's contract extension impacts the Astros moving forward
Prior to the postseason series with the Minnesota Twins, the Houston Astros announced that impending free agent first baseman Yuli Gurriel would return on a one-year, $7M deal. The contract includes a club option for 2022 for $8M.
Gurriel was far from the biggest fish facing the market for the Astros -- that's still George Springer -- but first base was a legitimate question mark for 2021 and beyond. Taylor Jones has been uninspiring in his Major League cup of coffee and doesn't seem like a long-term solution, and nobody else in the system stands out either. That being said, Gurriel had the worst season of his career in 2020. Is it smart to depend on a 37-year-old to bounce back? Was 2019 an outlier or the beginning of regression? Could the Astros have found similar production for a cheaper price on the market?
Gurriel has one of the most unique batted ball profiles in MLB, making him a tough hitter to judge.
He relies on bat-to-ball skills. He's never had a K% worse than his 2020 mark of 11.7%, clocking in at 10.6%, 11%, and 11% the last three seasons. He had an 8.8% mark in his abbreviated rookie campaign in 2016. Even his career worst mark of 11.7% is elite strikeout avoidance, placing in the 97th percentile in MLB in 2020.
The dedication to contact comes with a consequence: he doesn't do a ton of damage.
Gurriel broke out for 31 homers in 2019, but remember, the baseball was "juiced" in 2019. There's evidence that the ball has normalized again in 2020, as home runs dropped 8% despite the entire season only being played in warm weather months. For most of his career, Gurriel has been a 15-homer type of hitter. He hit 6 homers in 57 in games in 2020, which would've put him in that 15-homer range over a full 162 game season if he kept at that pace.
That completely makes sense. Take a look at the ridiculous level of consistency here.
HARD HIT %
It's almost impossible to be that consistent. Simply put, what story do these numbers tell? First, both the Barrel% and Hard Hit% are well below league average, especially the barrel numbers. His exit velocity is above league average, but it isn't special by any means. Gurriel is an "old school" player. He doesn't elevate the ball a ton, and he doesn't strike out a ton. If he played in the '80s, he'd be a household name and multiple time All-Star.
So, why are Gurriel's 2020 numbers so much worse than 2019?
- Neutralized Baseball
- Bad Luck
- Plate Discipline
Gurriel never has been and never again will be a 30-homer player. Again, he's a line drive profile that doesn't swing and miss a lot. He's also not a .232/.274/.384 hitter as his 2020 line shows.
Gurriel's BABIP in 2020 was .235, which is way below his career mark of .291. BABIP stands for "Batting Average on Balls In Play", so in his career, Gurriel gets a hit 29.1% of the time the ball is in play. Just based off of luck alone, there's about .060 points in batting average out there to be had. If Gurriel hit .292 instead of .232, people would feel a lot better on the surface. That's the bad luck part of it.
Gurriel actually had a career best mark in Zone Contact%, making contact on 94% of the strikes he swung at, about 3.5% better than his career mark, and a 3% improvement on 2019. Where his discipline profile changed was his ability to make contact on pitches OUTSIDE of the zone. Gurriel's Chase% was right in line with his career marks, chasing 34.3% of pitches outside the zone, but his Contact% on those dropped a whopping 6% from 75.4% to 69.6%. For a hitter as consistent as Gurriel everywhere else, that stands out as a massive difference. He also inexplicably swung at "meatballs", which are pitches right down the middle, only 62% of the time, 13% lower than last year.
On top is Gurriel's 2019 swing profile. Right below it is Gurriel's 2020 swing profile. It immediately stands out how much more Gurriel swung at pitches up and out of the strike zone and on the outer-third of the plate. While his chase-rate was the same year-to-year, there's a clear problem area in 2020 compared to a spread in 2019. Pitches up in the zone also play up in velocity, which could show that Gurriel's hands are slowing down a tick if he's struggling to get to that pitch. He also swung at a lot of pitches on the outer-third, which isn't necessarily a pitch he's successful with. Gurriel makes his money on pitches on the inner-third, especially at Minute Maid Park with the short porch.
Luck alone will get Gurriel pretty close to the player that he was from 2016-2018. A refined approach, like telling himself to hunt pitches down and lay off pitches away until necessary, can get him to tap into something more. The neutralized baseball will keep him from being 2019 Yuli, but all-in-all, the contract for Gurriel looks like a good deal. He plays plus defense at first base, his numbers indicate he can still be a productive bat in the lineup, and the free agent market at first base isn't all that impressive. Carlos Santana and Anthony Rizzo -- who both had bad 2020s as well -- headline the market, with guys like C.J. Cron and Mitch Moreland representing the next lower dollar options. Rizzo and Santana would likely be more expensive than Gurriel. Cron and Moreland would be cheaper, but they're also not as good. James Click's first extension as General Manager looks to be the right move at first glance.